The radiating boulevards of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park have been a defining feature of the park since they were proposed in 1937 by Gilmore Clarke and Charles Rapuano as part of the great transformation of a former ash dump into a thousand-acre World’s Fair site and park. At the time, the flat and barren terrain gave Flushing Meadows the look of a blank slate, open to any ideas that would shape its future as a park.
From the Cornell University archives, a 1936 Fairchild Aerial survey shows Meadow Lake beginning to take its form. The core of the park to the north of the lake is the subject of this essay. Had the Versailles-inspired boulevards not been selected, what would have been the park’s appearance?
A Tight Theme Center
One early plan from 1936 by Gilmore Clarke offers a compact fairground similar to the earlier World’s Fairs that were tightly clustered around a Theme Center.
On the west side, Grand Central Parkway would have swung around the Theme Center, hewing closer to 111st Street, while the north-south walkway would have been quite wide as it spanned Horace Harding Boulevard, opening onto a crescent-shaped tip of Meadow Lake.
Concerning Flushing Creek, the oval-shaped Pool of Industry was retained in the final plan for the World’s Fair, but notice how this early plan took the creek’s water towards the Theme Center with a long reflecting pool. This east-west axis was also retained in the final plan, but with smaller reflecting pools that had fountains. In the 1939 World’s Fair, this axis carried the name Constitution Mall. For the 1964 World’s Fair it was renamed Hoover Promenade and Eisenhower Promenade. Current maps of Flushing Meadows-Corona Park do not give this walkway a name, while its inactive reflecting pools are labeled as “Fountain of the Fairs.”
Future of the Fountains
Earlier this year the landscape architecture firm Quennell Rothschild publicized its plan to restore the World’s Fair Fountains on the axis between the park’s Theme Center and the Fountain of the Planets. This plan includes a fog garden spraying mist, a performance space and interactive water play. After decades of children playing in the fountain jets of the Unisphere, this facelift of the fountains would provide a safer and interactive place to play in the water.
Possible Arrangement of 1936
As it was becoming clear that the fairground would be larger than initially planned, Clarke returned to his desk with a more ambitious layout for the park. The north-south axis connecting the Theme Center to Meadow Lake was narrowed, while the east-west Constitution Mall was widened into a central lawn ringed by three theme zones. Flushing Creek is an afterthought here, diverted around the easternmost theme zone. Note the circular theme zone on the park’s western side (bottom of map). This became the transportation exhibits in the fair, comprising of railroads, aviation, and automakers. But the circular layout was rejected in favor of more sizable lots.
Alternative for 1964
For the 1964 New York World’s Fair, a portion of Flushing Creek flowing through the central section of the park was forced underground to make room for more exhibition buildings. But ahead of the fair, there was an alternative, as seen in this photo of Robert Moses from the New York Times. The model behind Moses shows the creek flowing freely through the fairgrounds while Meadow Lake is reduced in size to allow for an oval lawn at the Aquacade.
After 1964: Modern Park Alternatives
Following the 1964 World’s Fair, Parks Commissioners Thomas Hoving and August Hecksher commissioned proposals by architects Marcel Breuer and Kenzo Tange to redesign Flushing Meadows from a pastoral landscape towards a purpose of active sports. The map above comes form an Aug. 12, 1967 story on the proposal in the New York Times, reviewed by Ada Louise Huxtable.
This plan would have wiped Clarke and Rapuano’s radiating boulevard off the map entirely in favor of a grid that contained baseball fields, lacrosse, soccer, rugby, football field with a running track, tennis, and archery. If the goal was to cram as many sports activities as possible into one park, then certainly Breuer and Tange achieved the goal. For Meadow Lake, adventure-themed islands were part of the plan. The only structures of the World’s Fair preserved here are the Queens Museum, Terrace on the Park, Hall of Science, and Aquacade.
But not the beloved Unisphere! Flushing Creek and Fountain of the Planets would have been buried entirely in the park’s central core. The cost of the project and disagreements over contracts doomed this proposal.
The model of the unbuilt sports center shows the signature brutalism style of Breuer stretching out on a lengthy diagonal axis. An arch reminiscent of the one in St. Louis would have replaced the Unisphere as the park’s most recognizable feature.
Another view of the Breuer-Tange model shows the diagonal axis running from the Passerelle Building on the north to a bridge leading to Meadow Lake on the south. The rest of this empty terrain would have been reserved for sports fields. This proposal gave Flushing Meadows the look of an Olympic sports complex rather than that of a public park. Perhaps the city had dreams of hosting the world’s top sports venue, as it did again in its unsuccessful 2012 bid.
As late as 1989 there were still proposals floating around to radically alter the landscape of Flushing Meadows. In 1989, Bernard Tschumi drew a compromise plan of the park that preserved Clarke’s radiating boulevards and the Unisphere while filling most of the central core with tennis, baseball ,and soccer fields. Tschumi’s rendering daylights Flushing Creek, taking away some green space for the stream while replacing the lost lawn space by eliminating the Fountain of the Planets.
Between 1994 and 2005, investment banker Daniel L. Doctoroff dreamed of bringing the summer Olympic Games to New York. In 2002, New York was selected to compete as the 2012 Host City on behalf of the United States. It lost the bid to London in 2005. For Flushing Meadows, the Weiss/Manfredi-designed canoe course would have eliminated the Fountain of the Planets and two adjacent soccer fields, taking up a heavily used section of the park. In the proposal, it was unclear whether this venue would be permanent.
The most recent proposal to alter the landscape of Flushing Meadow was in 2012 when Major League Soccer sought to cover the circular pond with a $300 million, 25000-seat stadium. In the end, the games went to New Jersey’s Meadowlands, where the city’s two pro football teams also play. Had the stadium been built, it would have transformed Flushing Meadows into the Meadowlands of NYC- a former wetland transformed into a giant campus of professional sports venues and parking lots ringed by highways.
Anyone who appreciates the “what could have been” attraction of alternative history can imagine the impact of these failed Flushing Meadows proposals on the surrounding neighborhoods and the city. Be sure to read my other posts about the unbuilt history of Flushing Meadows such as the:
- Fountain of the Planets, where I write about the 2007 Flushing Meadows Corona Park Strategic Framework Plan by Quennell Rothschild & Partners, and the unrealized 1936 first plan for the park.
- The 1980s proposal for a Grand Prix circuit around Meadow Lake.
- The proposal to bring the permanent UN headquarters to Flushing Meadows.
- Formation of Meadow Lake, where I discuss the modified layout of the park, and an unrealized bridge on this lake.
- Jewel Avenue Bridge, where I discuss the failed 2012 Olympic proposal to unite the park’s two lakes.
This photo essay should serve as a companion to the book Never Built New York, which was published in late 2016 and had its own exhibit that year at the Queens Museum. In my view, it was perhaps the museum’s most memorable show in this past decade.
I’m amazed by supposed planners of parks who believe that covering ground with asphalt and concrete is better for everyone. I bet they haven’t been in places with greenery, flowing water and trees in a very long time.
Excellent post, Sergey! Always fun to read about “might have beens” for my own neighborhood. (I’m just blocks from the park.) I like the plan to re-surface the river. Do you think there’s any chance it will happen?
I take a proprietary interest in the fairgrounds. When a certain eccentric parks commissioner had signs put up renaming the water feature closest to me “the Fountain of the Planet of the Apes,” I complained and they took them down. One of my proudest moments.